How burning biomass in America could help fight climate change

In the past few decades, the proportion of general greenhouse gases produced by forests has steadily declined. The combined man-made emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide that still go into producing forest products make up less than 1 percent of the overall carbon cycle.

But as we have increasingly connected our homes to the environment with appliances, furniture and even air filtration systems, we are increasingly hitting forested areas with these items, giving a boost to wood production and laying the groundwork for more intense use of forests in the future.

At this point, carbon is extracted from the soil to make new wood, then called sawn logs or logs, and put back into the atmosphere to make new trash. But it is getting increasingly difficult to extract carbon from wood because of the graying of trees, so is now increasingly used for energy or cooking fuel. In areas with plenty of trees and few stoves, these wood waste piles are now popping up in trees.

Roughly 8 million cubic meters of timber were spilled in a single year in rural areas of the UK between 2000 and 2004, according to a report by Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and 56 percent of those unburned trees were leftover stumps of logs and stumps from the past. A cottage industry has grown up in America to capture the leftover biomass of trees by drying it and to turn it into biofuel and heat for homes. The notion of harvesting wood out of old trees has been the case in the US since at least the 1950s, but the added carbon capture and storage might mean the industry could see a boost.

Thanks to new manufacturing techniques and biomass standards, new plants are being built today to turn leftover trees into fuel. The Northeast US already has a number of plants, including two in Massachusetts and two in Rhode Island that make electricity and energy from waste wood, and one in Maine making fuel from straw used for cheese-making. And in Arkansas, a large company is converting trees to fuel in a pilot project.

There have been worries over the impact of burning biomass. For example, scientists have had worries about wildfires taking down trees and degrading soil, which would make them harder to replace. And in California, where there are concerns over climate change, more concern is being raised about methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, breaking down into other parts of the atmosphere as it burns.

Though wood waste looks like it might not add up to much of a deal with so many other trees in the world, the melting ice caps could change things. In a report on the future of forests in the Arctic published this month, researchers looked at what would happen if sea ice melted and the arctic sea ice, now nearly broken up, was reduced to about four percent of its previous size. So far, on average, the Arctic has lost about 28 percent of its land surface during the century, though in some parts it has shrunk much more rapidly.

Would even just five to 10 percent of the Arctic sea ice, the researchers said, have far-reaching effects? The vast majority of the arctic sea ice was summer ice (it melts off in the winter) and it reflects sunlight back into space. So if 95 percent of its ice melted, then 95 percent of the solar energy coming from the sun would be reflected back into space.

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